I spoke to a group this week and planned on using some humor. The group’s reputation was that they were not receptive to humor. People told me that speakers would try humor for this group and it always was a dud. A comatose audience.
I was scheduled to speak in the last half of the meeting. As I usually do at events, I sat with pen in hand jotting down notes that could be used for observational humor. Opening my short talk with four pieces of observational humor seemed like a good idea, since that’s what I normally do, even though I expected the laughter to be light.
When the time arrived for the MC to introduced me, I took my place at the front of the room. My first two lines were a joke and a topper (a joke followed by a related joke which gets a bigger response because of the set-up provided by the first joke. Professional comics often structure their material as joke/topper/topper, each funnier line riding on the coat tails of the preceding line and thus getting a larger laugh). I wasn’t expecting much from the first joke, it was really serving as a set-up for the topper line which followed. And to my great surprise they laughed! Not a small laugh, a good laugh. And the line wasn’t supposed to be THAT funny. The laughter actually shocked me. I immediately knew that ALL of my lines would be funny. And they were. Great, solid laughter.
An unresponsive group? Absolutely not. They were a very receptive group and they enjoyed humor. Apparently they previously had been treated to a parade of “humorous” speakers who simply weren’t funny and the audience had the good judgment NOT to laugh! And then they were tagged with a reputation they didn’t deserve. I needed to make a mid-course correction in my attitude and expectations.
I remember a regular performer at a Montgomery, Alabama comedy club where I often performed on Open-Mike Nights in the early 1980s. One night, after a bad set, the comic confided in me: “The audience bombed!” Not exactly. Although he was normally funny…on that night, HE bombed. Sometimes we’re too fast to blame the audience. We’ll never be able to make mid-course corrections unless we are in touch with what’s really happening.
As a humor speaker, making mid-course corrections while “on your feet” in front of the audience, is absolutely essential. The correction I had to make this week was to change my expectation of the audience. I wasn’t expecting much. And early feedback as I began my program told me to expect a lot. If I had continued to expect less, the principle of self-fulfilling prophesy may have come into play. I may have started trying too hard to be funny. I may have started to beg for laughs. I may have had the attitude of challenging them to laugh, of making them laugh. Fortunately, my experience immediately told me that they were going to be great. And my new expectation gave me a positive delivery and connection with the audience.
There were other times when I had to make mid-course adjustments in my presentations. Sometimes your program may not be working. Maybe the audience has had too much to drink. Maybe your program interrupted the dancing on New Years Eve. Maybe the audience didn’t want to be there, but were forced to be there, like prisoners in a penitentiary. Maybe earlier programs cut into your time and the audience was watching the clock wondering if you were going to cut into their next break. Maybe the sound system was so bad that the audience members in the back of the room couldn’t hear you. Maybe the spotlight was fixed and couldn’t light the portion of the stage where the microphone with the short cord was stationed. Maybe the table centerpieces were so tall that it was like 50 people standing in the middle of the room, blocking the view of many in the audience. Maybe the room was arranged with the first row of seats set 70 feet away from the speaking platform. Maybe you only had two hours sleep and weren’t at your sharpest. Maybe you had a bad case of the flu. Maybe you were speaking on a riverboat while standing on the doors which covered the diesel engine compartment which was totally drowning you out. Maybe your only lighting was yellow bug-lights (on the riverboat) and you looked like a cast member from Night Of The Living Dead. Well…enough of my real-life speaking and performing situations.
The thing to remember is that less-than-optimal conditions require coping strategies to deal with the challenges. You can’t just plod along with the same style, the same content, the same mental attitude. You can’t be on auto-pilot. When you’ve had a signal that something isn’t quite right, an adjustment is absolutely needed. Otherwise not-quite-right will turn into absolutely-horrible.
You may need to step off the platform and walk into the audience so they can hear or see you. You may need to depart from your prepared remarks and enter into a more casual question-and-answer session to connect with the audience. You may need to shorten your talk. You may need more humor. You may need less humor. You may need more visual humor. You may need to deliver with more energy. You may need to focus your eye contact. You may need to change your expectations. You may need to quickly and politely end your talk, pack your things, and leave with a smile on your face.
Always keep your radar tuned. Analyze the feedback you receive. Be realistic. It could be the audience. It could be you. Make adjustments. The more you do it, the better you’ll become at mid-course corrections. The more professional you’ll appear to the audience. The more both you AND the audience will enjoy the experience. The more you will make a difference in the lives of other people.